South Florida Water Management District speeding up construction of EAA reservoir

Tyler Treadway
Treasure Coast Newspapers

Construction of the EAA Reservoir and Stormwater Treatment Area will start in October, about 18 months earlier than scheduled, the South Florida Water Management District announced Wednesday.

The project’s stormwater treatment area, a 6,500-acre man-made marsh to be built by the district, was scheduled to be completed in 2024 but could be ready to start cleaning water bound for Everglades National Park much sooner.

“We can’t say exactly when it will be completed,” said district spokesman Randy Smith. “Expediting the start of construction by 18 months doesn’t necessarily mean construction will be done 18 months earlier. But it should be before 2024.”

The 10,100-acre reservoir being built by the Army Corps of Engineers should be completed in about eight years, Lt. Col. Jennifer Reynolds told TCPalm Tuesday.

The district and the Corps are splitting the $1.8 billion cost of the project.

Sugarcane fields were bulldozed as South Florida Water Management District staff announced preliminary construction of the EAA reservoir on a 560-acre tract of land at a news conference Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2018 in western Palm Beach County. Board Chairman Federico Fernandez said the water management district is "expediting this" project because it's "absolutely necessary" to move forward with constructing the 23-foot deep, 10,100-acre reservoir that will be able to store up to 78.2 billion gallons of excess Lake Okeechobee water. "Delaying is not an option," Fernandez said.

Late Tuesday, district officials applied for permits from the Corps and Florida Department of Environmental Protection to clear a 700-foot-wide strip of land, about 690 acres, to prepare for building a canal and perimeter levee for the stormwater treatment area.

The canal will feed water diverted south from Lake Okeechobee into the 23-foot-deep reservoir. With 37-foot walls, the reservoir in the Everglades Agricultural Area will be able to hold up to 78.2 billion gallons of excess lake water.

Water from the reservoir, an average of about 120.6 billion gallons a year, will be cleaned by the stormwater treatment area before being sent south to Everglades National Park.

When used in conjunction with other existing and planned projects, the reservoir is expected to reduce Lake Okeechobee discharges to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers by 63 percent.

More:Timeline for the EAA reservoir: What has happened? What will happen? 

Taking over leased land

The land currently is being farmed by Florida Crystals under a controversial lease the former district board approved November that blocked access by the district for about two years.

More:SFWMD board OKs leasing reservoir land to sugar grower

In a letter sent in April, the brothers leading Florida Crystals, Alfonso and Pepe Fanjul, gave district Executive Director Drew Bartlett a commitment that, if construction of the reservoir is accelerated, "we will transition land covered by the lease as needed by the SFWMD for construction of the EAA reservoir."

More: Corps says 'pieces' of EAA reservoir project can be built quickly

The district expects to receive the permits and complete preparation work for the levee and canal by the end of the year, allowing crews to start excavating the canal next year.

Once the levee, canal and stormwater treatment area are complete, the district can use the STA to clean southbound water even before the reservoir is completed.

The district began preliminary work on the project in November by clearing a 560-acre tract within the project site to store 800,000 cubic yards of rock to be used in building the dike surrounding the reservoir.

More: Preliminary work begins on EAA reservoir

The district began moving rock to the site in February.

More: Reservoir work continues with rock moving

"The residents of South Florida need and deserve the environmental benefits of this project," Bartlett said in a prepared statement. "We are here to deliver this project as soon as possible."

Eric Eikenberg, CEO of The Everglades Foundation, called the announcement "a step forward toward completing the long-overdue Everglades reservoir. The new leadership of the South Florida Water Management District should be congratulated for making this project a priority."